Riding the Labyrinth with Valentín

Riding the Labyrinth with Valentín

(© Kip Mistral 2018)

The labyrinth is a archetypal symbol that has appeared in pan-global culture, art and literature for thousands of years. A formal labyrinth created for meditation appears to meander in circles, but in reality is a purposeful path that focuses our attention in a powerful way on a personal pilgrimage experience. The word labyrinth can also describe a place, as in a garden maze, full of intricate paths and blind alleys, or as in the myth of the Minotaur, who is found in a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers on the island of Crete in Greece. Finally, it can be used to describe something extremely complex, intricate, confusing, and even tortuous. And why would I use that word in the title of a blog post that also includes the word “riding” and the name of my beloved Valentín (Val for short)?

I do because the last 16 years has been an equestrian odyssey, a pilgrimage, indeed and there has been much meandering in circles and many blind alleys in all kinds of labyrinths. I wrote the following before I moved to Florida in 2014–possibly the biggest single mistake of my life–which I will briefly explain at the end.

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I was taught to handle and ride horses by a western family, who, while they loved horses, had what I would now see as primitive approaches. Kick to make the horse go, pull on one rein or the other to make the horse turn, and pull back on the reins to make the horse stop. Watch out for the teeth and feet on the front end and the feet on the back end. And show ’em who’s boss. Well, I always knew it was never that simple, even though all my horses were complex, all coming to me “free, but not cheap” with major baggage from mistreatment, requiring much remediation. After the Off the Track thoroughbred blue-blood princess, a Northern Dancer granddaughter who possessed the foul temperament that he passed to all his get, and who even after six years was still trying to throw me on every ride, I decided I wanted, no, I needed, a clean slate.

I discovered the concepts of classical riding about the same time that I acquired my Andalusian Valentín when he was not quite 3, and was astonished by the principles insisting on balance, elegance and deep respect toward the horse. Unfortunately, in the early period I couldn’t find a truly classically trained and minded instructor nearby for support in exploring this new world of thought. Years later, I was still pussyfooting around, reading, watching DVDs, traveling to Europe to meet classical masters and writing what amounted to well over 100 published articles and co-authoring a best selling book on horse training in hand…all very thrilling, but back home, pretty much terrified of doing something that would affect Val negatively.

This is because I was fully aware that you can have all the good intentions in the world in your head, but if you have decades of experience doing something in a certain way, your brain is wired (and therefore so is your body) to reflexively do what it has done before. I hated all the pulling and pushing of horses that I saw all around me, and though I believed I did far less of that than I saw many others doing, I didn’t want to do any of it. Also, Val seemed to be constantly getting hurt in accidents and it seemed like as soon as we got training started, he would; get kicked and be laid up for a year with deep bone bruises in his hip and stifle; get major back spasms from an ill-fitting saddle that wouldn’t go away; get kicked in the jaw, shattering a molar and causing TMJ issues; damage a ligament; and on and on. We did laser therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, every kind of equine body work known to man, craniosacral work, BEMER treatments, Jim Masterson himself worked on him, you name it, we did it.

So, in the only significantly long healthy period we have experienced, during the time I lived in Tucson, when I realized the treasure of horse/rider biomechanics knowledge my friend Stacey Kollman of Desert Horse Equestrian Services had to offer, I decided I wanted to learn to ride Val with my seat.

“Sure,” she said. “But you can’t ride until you can make yourself energetically desirable to your horse on the ground. If they’re not with you on the ground, they won’t be with you from the saddle.” How do you make yourself energetically desirable to your horse? You take all his tack off, put his halter on, put two fingers on the noseband only with a hair’s touch and no pressure, no other commands or aids allowed, and walk on.

But the walking on doesn’t happen. Horses are used to being pulled, pushed, dragged, hauled, etc. Once they know that isn’t happening, AND you can’t use any voice commands, clucking, any urging whatsoever, only your breathing, relaxation, happy thoughts, and you are allowed to bend your knees a little and rock back and forth, and scoop your energy forward without moving your feet, even your own beloved horse will look down at you and grin a big toothy grin. “Hi Mom. You’re way down there! I’m taller than you, aren’t I” “Hi Val. Yes, you’re very tall. Come on, let’s go.” “I can’t hear you.” “Come on Val, let’s go, you know what to do.” “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”

When Val wasn’t looking down at me with an amused glint in his eye, he was looking out into space. I was struggling with this lesson on so many levels, he was taking a vacation.

Frustration, you think? Decades of leading a horse here and there where I want him to go, and suddenly I’m not the general anymore. I’m not anything except frustrated because without some kind of pressure, my horse is not only laughing at me but is just as confused as I am about what to do. For more lessons than I care to count, we both stood rooted in the arena sand, not able to go anywhere because we didn’t REALLY have a common language of fully reciprocal partnership.

I had to admit to myself that suddenly after 50 years of riding, I didn’t know anything and couldn’t do anything. And had to acknowledge that Val, who loved me after our 10 plus years together at this time several years ago, wasn’t energetically attracted to me. And, I was a little humiliated and even a little angry at myself as I realized that I, like almost everyone else, had been living in the land of illusion. I probably actually had softer hands than many, and might even be more gentle than many with my horse, but the fact that we were stuck in the sand spoke for itself. Without pulling on the leadrope or using any other aids, I couldn’t make him go.

And my frustration spoke nasty blaming things! After all, Val knew what I wanted and what to do, or he should after all these years! Why can’t he play along?! He’s taking advantage of this situation, certainly, when he’s not actually confused, but as Stacey muttered from the side, “Do you want to learn to ride by your seat, or not?” So I had to decide if I was going to keep going. “This is hard!” I thought, feeling a lump in my throat growing, the way it does just befoe you start weeping. “It wasn’t that bad before, maybe I want too much, maybe I’m reaching too far. Maybe I’ll find out I can’t do this!”

One day a light bulb went on in my head, as I stood as usual for my lesson with Val, rooted as we were in the arena sand. I realized that I still had the dominance paradigm in my head, even though I wasn’t (able to be) doing any dominant act. That’s where the frustration and anger came from..my head. The moment I realized this, and just became present with Val, enjoying his presence despite the fact I had been paying perfectly good lesson money for 6 weeks to stand in the sand and for Stacey to stand silently outside the arena where I was being tortured by myself, the next time I asked him to go with me, he walked on. “Now we can start,” says Stacey. “Go tack him up.”

Breathing was a big deal to Stacey. “Everyone knows when you hold your breath, you tense up, right? And when you’re tense, you hold your breath and turn into a block of human wood? And if the human is tense, naturally the horse gets tense? Imagine the joy a tense horse must feel to carry one of those human blocks of wood around on his stiff back, by the way.”

So, my newly born self-awareness, I also had to acknowledge that I was rarely, if ever, breathing. This habit probably started decades ago when I lived in Southern California and was commuting sometimes 5-6 hours each day to work. You’re always stuck in traffic, and you’re always late to somewhere, namely work, and unconsciously you slip into the state of holding your breath in frustration. That’s what I’m blaming it on anyway. I’d be miles down the road from the last place I’d remembered being conscious and I’d gasp for air. How long has it been since I breathed, I wondered? (You can also learn to stop breathing when you’re sitting in a cubicle working at a job you hate.)

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Stacey would say from the sidelines. “I AM breathing!” “No, you’re not.” “How can you tell?” “I just can.”

We went through this little patter so many times I actually started to learn when I was breathing and when I wasn’t, and could then make an effort to breathe on purpose. I noticed that when I was breathing, Val looked a little happier.

Stacey’s standing in the arena exercise she called “wiggle-waggle”, and this is using your two fingers on the halter noseband and very softly rocking your body side to side. The horse will surely be braced in the neck at first, but the combination of breathing and relaxing and wiggling his head a little will eventually result in him relaxing his brace and start to follow your fingers on his noseband and meld a little with your body swaying sideways. The idea is for this waggling head and neck to relax the horse and make a waggling movement through his whole body, demonstrating he is relaxed. It’s an amazing experience, because if you stop breathing or become tense, the horse braces and you get to start all over again.

“Why is your right leg so grippy?” Stacey complained to me one day as we circled her at a sitting trot. “It’s not grippy, I’m not doing anything different with it than my left.” “Yes, you are, you’re gripping with it.” “How do you know?” “I just do.” I found this a little insulting and started to object, when I remembered that a few years earlier when I was in Scotland visiting my friend Sylvia Loch at her wonderful old estate, her assistant trainer was giving me a lesson on her own horse. “Kip, do you know where your right leg is?” I thought and thought. I looked up into the sky for inspiration. I looked down at it. “No,” I confessed. “I guess I don’t know where it is without looking at it.”

With these two events in my mind, I made an appointment with an impressively credentialed performance sport therapist in Tucson for an examination and to begin some massage therapy. “What’s the verdict?” “Well, your pelvis is severely asymmetrical from your injuries, which you already know, but while your left psoas muscle is long and loopy, your right psoas muscle is tight and bunchy. It’s a compensation pattern.”

I take this information back to Stacey, victorious. “I’m not gripping and here’s why….(explaining).” “I don’t care why you’re gripping, you’re gripping.”

God, she’s stubborn. But she is always right. Sigh.

I learned in our laboratory that if both you and the horse aren’t relaxed, no magic is sure to happen.

But magic might happen when you least expect it. One lesson morning,  Val was “in a mood”, in some far off mental place. He was being lazy and leaning on the forehand, sometimes quite heavily. So Stacey suggested that we play around with the effects of using the hands vs. using the core to balance us and get him off his forehand. All I got from using my hands was a stiff neck (mine), but when I put my core into overdrive, suddenly Val woke up, became a Ferrari, put himself under me and turned our trot on the circle into a little passage. He was so excited to feel his own gears click in. He became balanced, powerful, light and all his attention was in the moment, in that circle, with me. We made it about half way around the circle and then we fell apart. I was ecstatic, though not sure exactly what had happened except I liked it a lot, and halted Val and turned to Stacey. “Did you ever tell me that before?!” I asked. “Only about 4,000 times,” she answered in that droll, no-nonsense way she has. You don’t know it until you know it and you can’t hear it until you can hear it, I guess.

What Val and I found out individually, and together, is that when we push through some layer of apathy or ignorance or mood, or some other limitation, this is where we find the gold. It’s amazing to me how much a horse can enjoy his education, even if it can be hard work sometimes. It’s clear to me that the process and prospect of the training can be just as overwhelming to our horses as it can feel to us, but if the work is handled with understanding, diplomacy and appreciation, they will come out the other side of a challenge with great pride in themselves and even more confidence.

Persistence, dedication, continuity pays off in the development of those moments and then stringing them along, closer and closer together as they multiply, and suddenly you realize you are really making progress. Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical…the horse and rider each work through their own levels and then come together for a few steps in perfect balance, where you are both weightless together and can’t tell where you end and the other begins. Val looks for those moments as much as I do.

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We were at our height of progress in our dressage when I moved us to Florida. It’s hard to say in a few words the absolute disaster that it was. The plan was I would move there and share a large equestrian property in Ocala with someone I had known for 10 years. It turned out the place was falling down, my room was full of black mold and poured rain through a crack in the ceiling when it rained (thus the indoor/outdoor carpet I had asked about) and this person turned out to be seriously manic-depressive and would stay in her room for weeks. Once I got out of there, the next barn I moved Val to did something to, or with him that gave him literally a nervous breakdown. He had to stay drugged heavily to keep him from pacing in his 10 x 10 stall like a caged tiger. I couldn’t handle him, he who before I could lead with a string. Val was so crazy that I gave permission when the vet wanted to geld my beautiful 15 year old stallion, thinking it might one thing to do that could save his life. I never did find out what happened.

Eventually order was regained, but I found out at the vet clinic that they had put him upside down on a table to do the castration and every bone in his body was out of position after that without my knowing it for a very long time. He had so many physical issues and lamenesses, thereafter, I had 9 vets and 8 farriers in two years and spent over $20,000 without them helping him. When I decided to come back to California, I flew with Val in a jet because I knew he was too fragile to make a long overland trip. Unfortunately, for him to be allowed in the stable I chose to board him, he had to have every vaccination known to man and chemical worming, all administered by a vet. Even though we spread the array of outrages to his system out over weeks, knowing his sensitivity we feared severe consequences. Indeed, it put him straight into laminitis and insulin resistance. He walked down the gangplank off the jet walking on eggshells.

We spent a year recovering from the laminitis and getting the IR under control. He gave himself navicular and ringbone from damage from the uncontrollable pacing he did during his nervous breakdown. Since he was unrideable physically due to all the various discomfort, and also today is somewhat reactive to various things in his environment that he never was before, I have been slow to think of getting back into “work”. So much standing around (even though we take long walks every night) has given him tight shoulders and muscle spams in his shoulders and his withers. His sacrum is perpetually out of alignment, his atlas is always out of adjustment. The arthritis in his right TMJ where he was kicked so many years ago has closed the joint and he has a permanent headache.

I look back and remember all the things I assumed we’d do when I got him, that we haven’t done. But I wouldn’t have learned what Val has taught me all of these years on the ground. I might have been so busy being a human “doing” that I wouldn’t have noticed that he insists on eye contact and is very communicative this way. I have gotten to know him to a depth I would never have expected. In my search for equestrian enlightenment, to “do better by him”, I have done and seen things and talked to people that I would never have dreamed I would, and been exposed to aspects of equestrian culture and tradition which I have enjoyed sharing in the past in the form of published articles, that I continue to enjoy sharing with others via my website here.

The classical labyrinth has a center which the incoming pilgrim reaches mid-journey before they head back out to wind their way to the exit. It’s a spot for meditation and reflecting on the journey. Val and I reached the middle some time ago and hung out here to look backward and look ahead. Four years later, we’re going to start winding our way out. He has a saddle again, I found an instructor for eyes on the ground, and we’ll begin yet again soon. I have no expectations, except that let’s see what happens next.

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